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Fouad Ajami, 1945-2014

Farewell to a master and a friend

AP Photo/Wathiq Khuzaie, Pool

“We are going to adopt you—we already have, of course—as Ibn Ballad,” Fouad wrote to me a little mischievously last year. “You won that title two years ago when the Arab Spring opened. You seem to have this material in your blood.” My new name was given in recognition of one or another of the futile and hectoring pieces I had written for American intervention on behalf of democratic movements in the Arab world. Since I have less of this material in my blood than my friend sweetly believed, I had to ask him for the meaning of the name. “Ibn Ballad is high praise,” he explained. “It means son of the land, a man from our village.” I was moved, of course, but immediately I thought to refuse the honor: if that is what Ibn Ballad means, then it was not my name, it was his name. 

I am not balladi; I came to Fouad’s side, and more generally to the agitation for the unembarrassed deployment of American power against certain manifestations of evil, only from books, and from the inherited memory of a different destruction far away. But Fouad was more balladi than anyone I have known: he carried Arnoun, the Lebanese village where he was born in the shadow of a Crusader castle, with him always. (“My village was a stern place, a rocky hamlet that grew stunted tobacco plants. The writers who celebrated the Arab awakening never ventured there.”) This was not “identity,” just as his decades in New York were not “exile”; it was his natural and unoperatic way of being alive. There was something autochthonous about him. His immersion in the vastness of Muslim culture was astonishing—the depth of it, the joy of it; and it accounted for the authority, analytical and lyrical, with which he explored it. He did not learn about Islam from Massignon or Berque or Hodgson. Professor Ajami was a political scientist whose preferred “data” were poems and sermons. The Arabic language made him swoon. He was sublimely balladi—and yet he was an unprovincial man. These roots did not choke. Fouad was one of those blessed individuals who dissolve the distinction between the universal and the particular. The specificity of his tradition did not confine him, it launched him. The insider was at home outside, the outsider was at home inside. He was the loyal son who authored the most blistering attack on the fathers in his time.

There is no more definitive demonstration of intellectual integrity than the willingness to offend one’s own congregation. The scandalizing of other congregations is easy, and rewards always accrue. When Fouad published The Arab Predicament: Arab Political Thought and Practice Since 1967 in 1981, “a chronicle of illusions and despair, of politics repeatedly degenerating into bloodletting,” he was rewarded with opprobrium throughout the Arab world, and even with danger, though there was also the gratitude of the growing number of fellow dissidents who were similarly outraged by the stultifications of Marxism, nationalism, autocracy, and Islamism in the various Arab societies. The book is full of the exhilarations of heresy. “The wounds that mattered,” it proclaimed, “were self-inflicted wounds. No outsiders had to oppress and mutilate. The whip was cracked by one’s own.” And: “At a time when despots were being sent packing in the most unlikely places (Chile, Argentina, Romania, Nicaragua) the Arab world’s despots were still in the saddle. . . . History here remains a chronicle of kings and would-be kings.” And: “It has been hard for the Arabs to escape from a deep historical dilemma: prison or anarchy.” Fouad’s long discussion of the “insistent traditionalism” of political Islam, of “the comparative advantage” of religion in assuaging “the desire to reassure oneself that the ground is solid, that the world is intact,” was compassionate, secular, bleak, and prescient. In a political culture that sustained itself by diverting the energies of self-criticism to the criticism of America and the criticism of Israel, Fouad’s summons to Arab self-reliance was shocking. But he was stubborn and he was brave. “As the world batters the modern Arab inheritance,” he wrote at the end of The Dream Palace of the Arabs, “the rhetorical need for anti-Zionism grows. But there rises, too, the recognition that it is time for the imagination to steal away from Israel and to look at the Arab reality, to behold its own view of the kind of world the Arabs want for themselves.” Its own view: for Fouad, peace with Israel was a requirement of Arab self-respect.

Yes, yes, Iraq. I am getting to it. Fouad’s enthusiasm for the war was owed to his ferocious wish to see a dictator fall who had slaughtered innocents with chemical weapons. He believed that American power could do good in Iraq, as it had done in Bosnia and elsewhere—could open up a closed Arab country, as for a while it did. About the war he was unrepentant, which according to the present consensus would have disqualified him from any further participation in American discourse. (The other day Rachel Maddow, who has never been significantly wrong about anything, published this Stalinoid sentence in The Washington Post: “Whether they are humbled by their own mistakes or not, it is our civic responsibility to ensure that a history of misstatements and misjudgments has consequences for a person’s credibility in our national discourse.”) The principles—which he was right not to repent!—that dictated Fouad’s support for the war dictated also his support for the extraordinary convulsions that can no longer be called, alas, the Arab Spring. The democratic rebellions in Libya and Egypt and Syria made him young again, as he eloquently and tirelessly (he was already ill) clamored in advocacy of the freedoms that stirred in Tahrir Square and Benghazi and Dara’a; and the descent of those emancipations into military tyranny and sectarian butchery broke his heart, his big and mighty heart, as did the pious torpor of the American government’s response to all the sufferings and all the opportunities. He died as an Islamist Khmer Rouge was fulfilling its vicious fantasy of a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. He died in June but in winter. It will be wintrier now. He was the Herzen of the Arab lands, in this land where a son of Arnoun and a son of Flatbush can discover that they are brothers.